Winner of the Believer Book Award
The triumphant follow-up collection to The Game of Boxes, winner of the James Laughlin Award
Catherine Barnett’s tragicomic third collection, Human Hours, shuttles between a Whitmanian embrace of others and a kind of rapacious solitude. Barnett speaks from the middle of hope and confusion, carrying philosophy into the everyday. Watching a son become a young man, a father become a restless beloved shell, and a country betray its democratic ideals, the speakers try to make sense of such departures. Four lyric essays investigate the essential urge and appeal of questions that are “accursed,” that are limited—and unanswered—by answers. What are we to do with the endangered human hours that remain to us? Across the leaps and swerves of this collection, the fevered mind tries to slow—or at least measure—time with quiet bravura: by counting a lover’s breaths; by remembering a father’s space-age watch; by envisioning the apocalyptic future while bedding down on a hard, cold floor, head resting on a dictionary. Human Hours pulses with the absurd, with humor that accompanies the precariousness of the human condition.
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About the Author
Catherine Barnett is the author of a previous poetry book, Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced. She has received a Whiting Writer's Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Accursed Questions, i
A doctor suggested I spend four minutes a day asking questions about whatever matters most to me.
Four minutes, that's how long it takes to boil an egg, get from 96th to 42nd on the express train, initiate an irreversible apocalypse.
* * *
How do I get out of here? is the question my father asks most frequently. It takes him three or four seconds to say the seven syllables, there are frequent glitches in his speech but it's a perfect mantra.
What next? and Jackie? are his other inquiries.
Jackie what next Jackie what next Jackie —
If you count repetitions, they add up to at least four minutes.
* * *
At dinner I asked my mother which wh-question she'd keep if she could use only one, and she said why.
I remember when she first told me she reads the obits to see how old people are when they die. A young man was recently in love with her, but she stayed loyal to my father, who's lost his memory. He doesn't ask who we are but often he wonders if we have something to do with him. Oh that's grand, he says when I explain who I am to him, and he to me.
* * *
Each time I read He will never ride the red horse she describes I feel sad until I remember the red horse is the sun, the same sun that will rise too soon tomorrow morning right here over my left shoulder.
My son is sleeping on the couch with all the lights on. Nothing bad can happen.
How long does it take? he says in his sleep.
* * *
Lying together a friend and I tried just to speak in questions. It was as intimate a way of passing time as any, except sex, I think. He asked why I have two empty glass bowls on the bookshelf. I didn't answer because I was only listening.
When my son was little, they were filled with Halloween candy.
* * *
What is an ending? the students sometimes ask. Ah, the answer to that question brings the priest and the doctor running over the hills.
* * *
Maybe best not to ask when will what take whom where and to do what. Jean once told me she's not interested in writing about getting older but about getting dead. In Lucy, she speaks directly to the oldest and most complete human ancestor. There is no boundary between the living and the dead:
Or what do you do now Lucy
for love? Your eye-holes.
Those of us who are scared just chronicle the slow path. The scar where they pulled my son from me is starting to sag now, etc., etc.
Turns out when is a question children learn late, after where, what, and who. Why is perhaps the latest, and it can go on incessantly.
Why and when and where and what all go back to the root who.
Lately I've been walking around talking to myself, who is full of swearing and disbelief.
* * *
Without much hope I opened my first small bottle of 3-in-One oil and applied it to the hinges of my front door that apparently keep my neighbor up at night. Squirting the oil on the wildly overpainted hinge was like throwing seeds on a blacktop and expecting a garden. But it worked, and that cheered me up.
Imagine if Augustine had been addressing 3-in-One oil instead of God:
Do the heaven and earth then contain Thee, since Thou fillest them? or dost Thou fill them and yet overflow, since they do not contain Thee? And whither, when the heaven and the earth are filled, pourest Thou forth the remainder of Thyself? ... Oh! that Thou wouldest enter into my heart, and inebriate it, that I may forget my ills, and embrace Thee, my sole good!
* * *
Can't we let him sleep all winter?
He wants to be set free. He wants to be set free upon the waters.
So much depends upon the kindness of questions. And the questions we cannot not speak of.
* * *
The radio is playing "Blowin' in the Wind," which was one of the first songs I learned on the guitar. At the age of ten, I couldn't get enough of the questions. I played it for anyone who'd listen, I played it in my nightgown, in my hand-me-down red Speedo, in my mother's sunglasses, in the reflection in my father's martini glass. I got so good at it I could play it while balancing on a bongo board in the middle of the living room. I got so good at it I can still feel the precariousness underfoot.
Appeal to Numbers
Excerpted from "Human Hours"
Copyright © 2018 Catherine Barnett.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Amenities 5
En Route 9
An Apprehension 10
The Light from across the Fields 13
The Skin of the Face Is That Which Stays Most Naked, Most Destitute 14
Still Life 18
Landscape with Borrowed Contours 19
Lyric and Narrative Time at Café Loup 20
Accursed Questions, i 23
Appeal to Numbers 29
Comic Morning 30
Idée Fixe 31
Essay on An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 32
Son in August 34
The Necessary Preoccupations 37
The Art of the Security Question 38
O Esperanza! 39
Accursed Questions, ii 43
The Humanities 49
Calamity Jane on Etsy after the 2016 Election 51
Another Divine Comedy 53
Let Facts Be Submitted to a Candid World 54
Metaphor on the Crosstown 55
The Sky Flashes 59
Origin Story 61
Central Park 63
Accursed Questions, iii 67
Pain Scale 73
In the Studio at End of Day 74
433 Eros 76
Uncertainty Principle at the Atrium Bar 77
Uncertainty Principle at Dawn 79
Beckett on the Jumbotron 80
Prayer for the Lost among Us 82
The Material World 85
Eternal Recurrence 86
Accursed Questions, iv 89
Amor Fati 95